Google’s Local Pigeon Thinks Legal Directories are “Law Firms?”

Google lives
By Attorney Michael Ehline: Pigeon brains are known for being, well, not too smart. So it should be no shock that an algo of the same name would be thinking that paid attorney directories are local lawyers. Let me explain. Several days ago, many of the C.O.L.T. members began notifying me of radical changes in local search.  I checked around on the Google Algorithm changes history, and could not find much talking about it, so I went to Mike Blumenthal’s blog and found this great article talking about the new local algo that favors more traditional web based signals. And what a roller-coaster ride this has been. This instant article discuses the results of what Mike was discussing.  Here, I discuss the phenomenon of many verified local law firms being replaced in Google Local, by a 1-800 number to an AVVO or lawyer search directory in the Local packs.

Google 3 Pack favoring

Crazy as it sounds, attorney directories are being listed as local law firms in many locales. In my opinion this is part of a bug, but let’s see how long it takes to iron out. We know that Google has been notorious for being slow to act on spam reports and changes, so as to not set off patterns that could be manipulated and in order to create a scaled system that gets rolled out in a later algo or update. So it could take days, or it could take years before this issue is fully addressed. But right now, unless something changes, you are left with having your old spot replaced with a very expensive, paid legal directory website now listed as a “service area business.” LOL!

Although this kind of thing has occurred quite a bit in LA in the past, it was never at a scale of anything like this. It could just be a dance that will correct itself in a few days. In the interim, many lawyers I speak with are becoming so dissatisfied with the recent and constant algo shifts and changes, that they are beginning to focus on Bing PPC campaigns as a sort of protest. I get a feeling of resentment from some of our members that Google is becoming unfriendly to anyone not paying some big brand something.

It seems Google’s favoritism towards SERPS for “high quality” and typically “highly paid” legal directories, has now translated into a Local Maps search for a “lawyer” producing a gateway to a lawyer directory website instead of a real local business. In any event, I am pretty sure none of these “local” business legal directories are registered with the California State Bar as Registered attorney referral services, or LRS. In my mind,  with the fees some of these sites charge for “placement” they really are de-facto referral services! It is just like profit sharing when you consider how much they charge. But I say not so fast. Lawyers should not give up on Google just yet. This could be the beginning of something huge and beneficial to local lawyers who have worked hard to focus on their own websites and social signals. The Semantic Web, as professed by David Amerland, needs to be more closely coordinated with organic results in order for this to work as a well oiled machine. The real problem is that Google has gotten much much smarter in terms of artificial intelligence since the days of Diane Westgate and Carter Maslan. Right now the infant Pigeon chick is still trying to discover user intent. If you report these non attorney lawyer directories as being non attorney directories in Maps, the Pigeon will factor in this information, and probably will no longer serve this data up at some point. It may already be learning what is and is not a physical lawyer. But right now it must think that any website that sells listing to a lot of attorneys is of significant value and assumes it is a real attorney. I mean, we do know that prior to baby Pigeon, the algo liked to get NAP data from sites like Yelp, and Findlaw, for example. I would imagine this new Pigeon is still factoring organic and NAP and trying to learn, and this is why every day when we check our rankings, we see they are gone, or back in a different or new slot. This theory of mine seems to be buttressed by other reputable sources. There definitely appears to be an effort at merging organic search with Local Search. But Google just pushed out the new “Pigeon” update a few days ago (Source.)  How this update will ultimately affect your attorney rankings remains an open question, but if this trend continues, it may be smarter to pay attorney directories and close your law office. After all, how will you afford your lease? In any event, Marines adapt and overcome. And as a lawyer who handles your own marketing destiny, you have to be a legal warrior in all aspects of your business, not just in litigating or managing your staff.  You have to understand search just as if you are Eric Enge or Andre van Wyk. You have to be a field commander. Google said on July 24, that English results in the U.S. started to roll out, the reported goal being to “provide a more useful, relevant and accurate local search results.” But here, it is not a penalty or filter, it is a clean up of stale data, and low-quality content (presumably low quality traditional info sites and local sites.  Make no mistake, this is a major local search ranking algorithm and its affects are already freaking a lot of people out, especially lawyers. What we are seeing right now is that many Local listing packs are gone entirely, for a gigantic portion of  keywords. Unless you have organic presence for your lost KW, PPC is probably your only chance. So before, if you did a search for personal injury attorneys, for example, you may get a 1o pack. Presently, you may get nothing, or you may get three. This definitely seems to be a more random, hit and miss system designed to take away certainty to the local business. But who knows.

Anyways, here is an example of AVVO now being a local “Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney”. The Law Offices of AVVO

In the below graph taken from MOZCast, we see a significant drop in displayed queries of down from 12,1% of queries prior to July 23, 2014 all the way to only 3,3% by July 27, 2014. Wow that is a huge hit. One of my members pointed out that when Google stock prices drop, within days there seems to be a “helpful” rollout that seemingly gives PPC boost. I have not seen any statistics on this, but lawyers are trained to look for these types of patterns when building cases, so it would be interesting to see any related causation and correlation factors if you have any to add to this piece.

Pigeon MOZ Graph

MOZ image

How Can I Weather the Storm as a Lawyer Who Has Traditionally Done Well Online?

Ok, so now the million dollar question, how does a small firm survive in the constant and ever increasing wake of these significant ranking shifts?  Right now, it appears you need to be getting paid listings in as many expensive lawyer directories as possible, and/or spend at least $5 to $10 grand per month on PPC to get some decent bid scores and placement. At least this is the conclusion a few of my buddies suggested who gave up on organic search altogether. The downside is that you may need to consider working from home and cutting staff in order to afford the advertising, at least in the short term. Once you build up a high enough Quality Score and master PPC, you may find the cost to benefit ratio outweighs paying SEO companies and stressing out about the next new spam filter or improvement crushing you.

Track Your Local Ranking Fluctuations

One way to gauge your strategy is to take a look at Rank Tracker.  Click “universal search results” tracking the Preferences > Rank Checking Mode and check > Use Universal search Results. This will take you to the History Records button and you can take a look at your local algo changes.   The upside for many of us who were organic based law firms, is that our high DA sites should benefit more.  This means sites that have been at it the longest and did it right, should do better in Local search.

Focus On Improving Your Main Lawyer Site

Doing link disavowals and removing bad links to your main site is now more important than ever.  Having outstanding content on your main site, and sites pointing to your main site is also bigger than ever now. So if you tanked locally, that probably means you are tanking organically, and you need to run a backlinks analysis.

Who Can Help?

  • LSI Writing: Take a look at your writing skills and consider rewriting your web pages to make them offer value to people instead of some Keyword based factors. Consider hiring an English Major, or journalist to write for you. Consider joining the Circle of Legal Trust
  • Link Dilution and Removal: Take a look at Audience Bloom, or Eric Enge at Stone Temple if you want to take decisive action on bad links.
  • NAP Data:  You still need to continue to build your NAP (Name, Address, Place data so don’t forget about that.  Here is an old list of Local Citation Sources, but I still need to update it, so bear with me. I have to get to court!)
  • Brand Building: Don’t forget to focus on building your brand and replacing any lost bad links with new good ones.  Here is a great article on how an attorney can get a free and natural backlink that is not contrived or deceitful.

If you have any questions, or would like to join us in being part of our trusted network of attorneys, and learn more about traditional, time tested methods in building a more stable law practice, feel free to contact me in our above contact us form.

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